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A Link between hairstyles

How Legend of Zelda matched hair to the masculinity of the moment

An illustration of a pile of snapshots featuring Link from Zelda with various hair styles and hats, with a pair of scissors sitting next to the pile Illustration: Christine Lee for Polygon

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In 2014, writer Alice Gregory, while arguing in favor of uniform dressing, proclaimed, “My hair, I have decided, is my main accessory.

That easily applies to The Legend of Zelda series’ hero, Link. While his uniform — green tunic, floppy beanie, boots, and relatively skintight pants — remains fairly consistent (with the exception of the highly customizable outfits in newer installments), Link’s hair defines the Hero of Time with each console incarnation. The Hero of the Skies from The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword sports an uncanny early Instagram look, with over-inflated lips and neat, side-swept bangs . The Hylian Champion in Breath of the Wild rocks a modern reinterpretation of a mullet cut.

Link is not your average mascot: His looks, which include soft, androgynous features, a sharp nose, and a lithe physique, set him apart from most Nintendo, Sony, and Sega mascots. He is, by all means, classically handsome and hot — and his hair plays a major role in conveying his handsomeness. That’s because all of Link’s hairdos reflect major hairstyle trends across the decades.

The NES and SNES era: The Hero With a Mullet

Illustrated Link from Zelda II: Adventure of Link brandishing his sword and holding up his shield
Michael J. Fox standing at his locker in Teen Wolf
(L) Promo art for Zelda II: The Adventure of Link | (R) Michael J. Fox in Teen Wolf
Images: Nintendo; Atlantic Releasing Corporation

Link’s original character design featured a button nose, freckles, and a stubby frame and limbs. Official lore has it that Peter Pan played a great part in the character design inspo. In an era of low-res pixel screens and limited color capabilities, his pointy ears and voluminous, pompadour-like mullet were instrumental in making the character recognizable in the in-game graphics — that’s why Mario got his mustache, after all. Link keeps the flip in The Legend of Zelda, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, and A Link to the Past.

Link’s mullet was a hairstyle sported by many a 1980s hero who was childlike and resourceful, but not exactly dashing. Michael J .Fox’s characters Scott Howard from Teen Wolf and Marty McFly from Back to the Future do, in a way, resemble the original Link, as does Noah Hathaway as Atreyu in Wolfgang Petersen’s The Neverending Story. Even Tom Cruise’s fairy boy character in Legend bears some resemblance. On the cartoon front, notice how he vaguely resembles swineherd Taran from Disney’s The Black Cauldron and the Hobbits from the Lord of the Rings 1978 animated feature (and, to be honest, even Elijah Wood’s IRL Frodo).

The N64 era: Making Link handsome

Leonardo DiCaprio in Romeo + Juliet smoking a cigarette in a floral shirt unbuttoned at the top
(L) Link from The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time | (R) Leonardo DiCaprio in Romeo + Juliet
Images: Nintendo; 20th Century Fox/Everett Collection

At the height of the popularity of Nick Carter and the Backstreet Boys, Leonardo DiCaprio in Romeo + Juliet and Titanic, Johnny Depp’s grunge era, and the highly melodramatic love triangles of Dawson’s Creek, if you wanted to play the part of the hero, you needed curtain bangs. Characters who sported them were, at least to a certain extent, sexy but not in a threatening way. Link’s designers took the cue.

We have to thank the wife of one of the developers for Link’s mid-1990s look. When Nintendo was getting ready to launch The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, developer Yoshiaki Koizumi was met with a reality check from his wife. In an “Iwata Asks” interview (the original link is now dead and can’t be accessed), he revealed that his wife claimed that “all of Nintendo’s characters have funny noses; don’t you have any handsome ones?”

Per the official lore contained in The Legend of Zelda: Art & Artifacts, he was designed with the looks of a certain Hollywood actor in mind, and while there are no official sources on the identity of the celebrity that inspired Link, it’s easy to see ’90s DiCaprio behind his impeccably styled curtain bangs, which molded him into the Japanese bishōnen archetype without descending into hypermasc territory (that’s Darunia and Ganondorf for you).

When designer Yoshiaki Koizumi paired those blond bangs with pierced ears and a fine, upturned nose, he realized Link was getting too hot to handle, so he paired his thigh-grazing, skintight tunic with white tights (which seem to be making a comeback at my local gym). When it came to updating the character design for Ocarina of Time’s quick-turnaround sequel, The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, Link’s features became sharper, his brows darker. The Fierce Deity mask, basically a very fancy power-up you get if you manage to collect all masks in the game, does finally turn child Link into a hypermasc version of adult Link. “Fierce Deity would definitely be a great name for a manosphere influencer,” says one internet friend with many, many opinions on Link.

Link was hardly the only video game and cartoon hero sporting curtain bangs; other fans of the haircut include Squall Leonhart from Final Fantasy 8 (rumored to be inspired by River Phoenix) and Team Rocket’s own James from the Pokémon anime. In addition, both Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune wear a variation of curtain bangs in Sailor Moon. In the late 2010s, curtain bangs resurfaced again among K-pop stars, but it’s hard not to see the resurgence of this cut as a nostalgic throwback.

GameCube and Link: He’s a scenester

Photo: Toronto Star via Getty Images

What does 2000s Link have in common with the Swing Kids, Antioch Arrow, and young Justin Bieber? With the exception of his Ocarina phase, he was never an audiophile or a particularly musically inclined individual. Instead, the answer lies in the hair: At some point, the Swing Kids, the members of Antioch Arrow, and a young Justin Bieber all sported choppy, layered, side-swept bangs. Some call them “scene bangs,” others “emo bangs.”

For the 2006 installment The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, the art direction moved in a darker, grittier direction, and Link’s character design reflects that. Now a young adult ranch worker, the Wii-ready Link was given angular and chiseled facial features, and a more elaborate getup. His green tunic features side slits and lace-up sleeves, and you can distinctly spot chainmail underneath. The white tights he wore during Ocarina of Time are now tan skinny pants, which you can tell by the way they characteristically bunch up at the knee and by the rough stitching that you can see in-game. Link would look right at home in any medieval fantasy TV show.

The haircut drastically contrasts with the outfit: Link appears to be sporting choppy, heavily layered, side-swept bangs. The character design and the in-game graphics almost make them look styled with holding wax. As one clever Redditor aptly defined it: This is Link as “Nomura Tier,” referencing the character stylings of Final Fantasy designer Tetsuya Nomura, known for his intricate hairdos (not to mention highly ornate outfits… and retcons).

In 2011’s The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, the Link known as the Hero of the Skies looks quite similar to his Twilight Princess incarnation, but more debonair. “The expressions on his face are portrayed as slightly more comical and lighthearted than before, so that regardless of what expression he makes, the expressions themselves seem relatable,” said character designer Kobayashi in The Legend of Zelda: Hyrule Historia. And while the game’s character and concept art have a whimsical, painterly quality thanks to the almost iridescent watercolor paint, the in-game graphics don’t do justice to Link. The playable hero has duckface lips (a hint to early selfie art?) and his pants are now baggy and almost billowy; he still stuffs them in his boots, but the proportions just don’t work, and he looks at least 4 inches shorter.

It would be unfair to totally pan his look in Skyward Sword. It is, by all means, a bridge between the edgy GameCube/Wii era and the exceptional, Studio Ghibli-esque character design heralded by the two Switch titles, Breath of the Wild and Tears of the Kingdom. But there’s a reason they remade and reissued the game.

The Switch era: A genderful Link

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild - Link taking in a vista Image: Nintendo EPD/Nintendo

In the E3 2014 trailer for The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Link tore off a cloak to reveal a ponytail. His build was slighter, too. Based on these preliminary images, speculation over Link’s gender abounded. After all, a female Link known as Linkle had been revealed in the Hyrule Warriors spinoff. “Back during the Ocarina of Time days, I wanted Link to be gender neutral. I wanted the player to think ‘Maybe Link is a boy or a girl,’” Zelda producer Eiji Aonuma told Time in 2016. “I really wanted the designer to encompass more of a gender-neutral figure. So I’ve always thought that for either female or male players, I wanted them to be able to relate to Link.”

This came to full fruition in Breath of the Wild, where Link has a physique reminiscent of his adult Ocarina of Time build and a hairstyle that looks like an amalgamation of his 1980s and 2000s iterations: long sideburns and bangs that are a cross between his olden-days pompadour and more recent emo bangs. His tunic was now a bright teal, mainly because the abundance of greenery in Hyrule would have swallowed him whole.

The variety of armors and sets available in Breath of the Wild also resulted in a wide variety of hairstyles. The Desert Voe and the Stealth sets have Link tie his hair in two different types of top knots; in the Snowquill set he ties his sideburns in strings of rope and pearls while also wearing what appears to be winged barrettes. In the sequel, The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom, you can choose, if you will, to tame Link’s blond strands (a few websites call his early-game look “scruffy” and “hobo-like”) by retrieving a hair tie, and by using sets of armor like those in Breath of the Wild. In addition, the Ancient Hero set explores anthro culture, while the Yiga set is like a full-body latex suit. Still, even in all these kink-adjacent outfits, Link maintains an air of youthful playfulness.

“Link is the game protagonist, so we always thought we needed him to look cool,” commented Aonuma in the artbook The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild – Creating a Champion. “Yet, if we overdo it, the people playing the game might feel like they’re controlling an already accomplished hero, which I felt could get in the way of the players immersing themselves in the game.”

What might be next for Link? If Hyrule truly follows the IRL trend cycles, in his next mainline installment, he should be revisiting Y2K and early-2000s styles, or maybe even indie sleaze (there’s something indie-sleazy about his Twilight Princess getup). However, given how the trend cycles are now as chaotic as Final Fantasy 8’s own time compression, customization might allow your Link to look the way you like him best.

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